Law enforcement is a fact of life in modern park management. As illustrated by the case described herein, individual behavior which may appear bizarre to others is not necessarily criminal. That being said, depending on the circumstances, such seemingly bizarre behavior may provide probable cause for a reasonable police officer to effect an arrest in a public park for what is later determined to be innocent conduct.
Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code (42 U.S.C. sec. 1983) imposes liability on state and local government officials who apply a law or ordinance in a manner reasonably calculated to deprive an individual of rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Moreover, Section 1988 (42 U.S.C. sec. 1988) allows a federal court to award reasonable attorney’s fees to a prevailing party in a Section 1983 claim. The availability of reasonable attorney fees creates an incentive for attorneys to provide representation and pursue civil rights claims on behalf of individuals who have been deprived of their constitutional rights under color of state law.
In the case of Galbreath v. City of Oklahoma City, NO. CIV-11-1336-HE, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152652 (W.D. Ok. 10/24/2012), plaintiff Allen Galbreath brought Section 1983 and 1988 claims against the City of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City police officer Kevin Parton. In so doing, Galbreath alleged his arrest for disorderly conduct pursuant to Oklahoma City Ordinance 30-81 violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure of his person. In so doing, Galbreath also claimed he was arrested because “his expressions do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes or mainstream tastes.”
On June 7, 2010, Galbreath, a former ballet dancer, went to Goodholm Park in Oklahoma City to perform his morning physical therapy exercises, which are based on ballet moves. He was carrying a red purse or bag that contained an air pistol. Galbreath described the bag as “a red diaper bag,” which he testified he usually used to carry his air pistol, other personal items, and high heels that he would change into at the park. In addition, Galbreath was wearing “[o]versized gray pants, a fitted gray T-shirt, and a red bandana” as a headband, in addition to black high-heeled shoes. Galbreath referred to the shoes as “character shoes.” Galbreath also was carrying a cane, which he estimated as being at least three feet long and more than three inches in diameter.
Due to a medical condition, it is painful for Galbreath to stand or walk. He testified that he has difficulty walking and it could appear as though he were stumbling. Galbreath was working out at the park to “get [his] body back together” so he could resume his career as a female impersonator. He was “using the high-heel shoes as a form...of physical therapy.”
Once at the park, Galbreath went to the bleachers, put his bag down, and then walked to the tennis courts to pick up some trash. He was talking on his cell phone, laughing loudly, and singing. Galbreath disputed that he was singing loudly that morning, although he testified that he was singing and that “I...sing rather loud” and “I use the park as my studio, my rehearsal hall. So, yeah, I—I kind of let it go.” At some point, Galbreath performed a choreographed dance move that involved spinning the cane in his right hand, then his left hand, then with both hands and then spinning it up and around, above and below his head.
Galbreath was observed by an individual, Gayle Franklin, who was at the park with her five grandchildren. Franklin stated she heard a man yelling and looked up and saw a person waving a big stick around, as if “he was having a sword fight with somebody.” Franklin testified that the “stick” was six feet long. She said he looked and sounded drunk and was “acting like someone was attacking him and he was protecting himself with this big long stick.” She could not understand what the person was saying but testified she was scared by the way “he was swinging the stick and yelling and staggering.” She had the children hide in a nearby slide and called 911. She told the dispatcher that she was at the park with her five grandchildren and there was a man in high heels with a big stick and a purse who was “drunk.”
Officer Parton responded to the 911 call. The dispatcher stated: “Check for a morals violation at 2701 North Robinson. At the park there’s supposed to be a single 87 black male.” The number 87 is a code used by the Oklahoma City Police Department to indicate that an intoxicated pedestrian has been reported. The officer got to the park at 8:50 a.m., about five minutes after Galbreath had arrived. Galbreath, at that time, was talking on his cell phone. Officer Parton approached Galbreath and, when he was approximately an arm’s length away, Galbreath raised his cane. Galbreath did not deny that he raised the cane. Rather, he stated that he “admit[ted] to performing a deliberate and choreographed dance move using his walking cane, but he denie[d] any characterization that he was swinging his walking cane in a wild or unpredictable fashion, or in any manner that could be perceived as a threat.”
The officer asked Galbreath what he was doing and he replied “[m]y morning exercises” and started a ballet move in response to Parton’s question. Parton then escorted Galbreath to the police car. Parton searched Galbreath’s bag and found an air pistol that Galbreath told Parton he carried for protection because he was a homosexual, cross-dressing black male. Parton asked Galbreath to put his hands behind his back so he could be pat searched for weapons. Galbreath initially complied, but when he began to pull away and become verbal, Parton handcuffed him. The officer ran background checks on Galbreath, but did not find any arrest warrants or sexual criminal history. He arrested Galbreath for violating the City’s disorderly conduct ordinance, Municipal Code § 30-81.
In pertinent part, Municipal Code § 30-81 states: “A person is guilty of disorderly conduct, a Class ‘a’ offense, when such person…causes public alarm without justification.” Accordingly, to constitute disorderly conduct in violation of the ordinance, the arresting officer is required to observe a person engaging in behavior that “causes apprehension by the public and there must not be an apparent explanation or justification for the behavior.” In his report, the officer stated in part:
Based on my observation of the AR [arrestee], his lack of a legitamate [sic] purpose to be in the park and the initial calls from citizens who were alarmed by the AR’s presence, it appeared that the AR was creating a suspicious situation with unnecessary risk to the public, being the children and women in the park. The fact that the citizens called the police out of concern for the AR’s behavior is evidence of their public alarm. The AR was placed under arrest for disorderly conduct.
Parton stated that Galbreath, in his presence, was loud and “was unsteady on his feet and never mentioned a physical problem walking, leading me to suspect he may have been intoxicated.” The officer also attested that “[a]ll the people were gathered at the playground equipment apparently alarmed by the Plaintiff’s behavior instead of open play that would be expected at a park (other than the two individuals playing tennis, who were in a closed location).”
After Galbreath was charged with disorderly conduct under Municipal Code § 30-81, he was taken to jail. The city subsequently dismissed the charge. In a sworn affidavit, Assistant Municipal Counselor Laura Yates stated that “it is not a violation of the City’s ordinances for an individual to wear clothing that is typically associated with the opposite gender” and the Municipal Counselor’s Office “cannot prosecute individuals for merely wearing clothing that is typically associated with the opposite gender as such conduct would not violate any City ordinance.”
Dude Looks Like a Lady
Prior to his arrest on June 7, Galbreath had regularly visited the park and had, at times, worn women’s high-heeled shoes but had not been arrested. Galbreath testified that during the first six months of 2010, he went there two to three times a week and wore high heels while performing physical therapy exercises for leg and hip pain. He stated that June 7 was the first time he had ever walked to the park in high heels. He said, “I usually have my high heels in my bag; and when I get to the park, I’ll put my high heels on and then take them off and put them back in the bag.” Galbreath has also visited the park since his arrest, three to four times a week, but has not worn high heels from fear of being arrested.
Galbreath asserts that, while he would wear women’s heels to the park for therapeutic reasons, “doing so also permitted him to express himself and his association with the female gender and female identity.” However, he testified that he “was using the high-heel shoes as a form—form of physical therapy; and I didn’t, in my mind, think of that as dressing like a woman.”
Galbreath claimed Parton violated his Fourth Amendment rights when he arrested him for disorderly conduct. In so doing, he contended the officer lacked probable cause to believe he was violating Municipal Ordinance 30-81. Galbreath argued that Parton unconstitutionally searched his purse because the search was not incident to a valid arrest.
In response, Parton claimed he was entitled to qualified immunity on plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claims because he had probable cause to arrest Galbreath for disorderly conduct. Further, Parton contended the search of Galbreath’s bag was proper as either a limited protective search for weapons or as a search incident to arrest.
As noted by the federal district court, “it is clearly established that an officer may not arrest an individual without a warrant unless there is probable cause.” The issue before the court was, therefore, whether Galbreath’s behavior constituted disorderly conduct under Municipal Code § 30-81, providing Parton with sufficient probable cause to make an arrest.
According to the court, “[p]robable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer’s knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution to have the belief that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested.” As noted by the court, the applicable legal standard for determining probable cause “requires more than a bare suspicion, but not proof beyond a reasonable doubt or even a preponderance [i.e., more likely than not].”
Further, the court found probable cause is not based on “the subjective belief of an individual officer as to whether there was probable cause for making an arrest.” Rather, the following “objective standard” would be applied “in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition” to determine whether sufficient probable cause existed for making an arrest:
If a reasonable officer could have believed that probable cause existed to make a warrantless arrest, the arresting officer is entitled to qualified immunity. Under this framework, sometimes referred to as “arguable probable cause,” even law enforcement officials who reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present are entitled to immunity.
As a result, to avoid having his unlawful arrest claim dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, Galbreath would have to prove that Parton “arrested him without probable cause” (that is, that he violated a constitutional right). In addition, Galbreath would also have to demonstrate that it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that probable cause was lacking under the circumstances (that is, that the right was clearly established in the specific situation).
As noted by the court, Galbreath had “admitted to the conduct” on which the court would base its determination of probable cause for the challenged arrest. Since Galbreath had been arrested for violating Oklahoma City’s disorderly conduct ordinance, the court would, therefore, consider whether “the officer had probable cause to believe the statutory elements of public alarm and lack of justification were present” under “the totality of circumstances.”
In this particular instance, the federal district court concluded “the facts and circumstances within Officer Parton’s knowledge and of which he had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution to have the belief that an offense was being committed by the person arrested:”
Officer Parton was dispatched to the park to investigate a possible “morals violation.” He did not speak with the person who placed the call once he arrived at the park or anyone else, and was not told what Ms. Franklin said when she called. However, he either knew or could reasonably assume he was dispatched because of a 911 call. He thus was aware, when he arrived at the park, that someone had been alarmed enough by plaintiff’s presence to contact the police.
Galbreath had contended that Parton’s “lack of investigation” supported his claim that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. However, based on Parton’s own observations, the federal district court found Parton “had sufficient information to conclude that probable cause existed to arrest plaintiff for violating the city ordinance.” Moreover, in the opinion of the court, “if the officer had spoken with Ms. Franklin, that would only have substantiated his conclusion that, with no obvious explanation for plaintiff’s wobbly walk, loud laughter, singing, and cane twirling, his presence at the park was causing public alarm.”
When he got to the park, Officer Parton observed an individual who matched the description he was given, who was dressed unusually, was unsteady on his feet, and was carrying, if not swinging or twirling, a sizeable cane or stick. As Officer Parton drew near him, plaintiff raised his arm and cane. When asked what he was doing, plaintiff performed a ballet move and responded that he was doing his exercises. While that movement may have been a ballet or choreographed dance move, it was not unreasonable for the officer to fail to recognize it as such. Ballet exercises may have been routine for plaintiff, but they are unusual in a park setting.
Moreover, the court found Galbreath’s “abbreviated response to the officer, that he was exercising, did not explain why he was twirling a cane around in the middle of a park.” Under the circumstances, the court found further that Parton “also had to consider that he was confronting this behavior in a city park that included a playground.”
[Parton] noted that people apparently were alarmed by plaintiff’s behavior because, with the exception of the tennis players, everyone was gathered at the playground equipment. In the process of determining whether to arrest plaintiff, the officer had to consider where the behavior was occurring and who, in this case children, might encounter it.
As described by the federal district court, the relevant question in determining probable cause for an arrest is “whether a substantial probability existed that the suspect committed the crime, requiring something more than a bare suspicion.”
Even if probable cause was assumed not to exist for Officer Parton to arrest plaintiff for disorderly conduct, the court would nonetheless conclude that it would not have been clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful under the circumstances presented.
While acknowledging “[w]ith the benefit of hindsight,” the encounter with Galbreath “might have been handled in some different or better fashion,” the federal district court found sufficient evidence for a reasonable official to suspect that Galbreath’s activity constituted a violation of the law. As a result, it granted summary judgment to defendants, effectively dismissing Galbreath’s Fourth Amendment arrest claim.
Notice in Ordinance
The federal district court also considered Galbreath’s claim that Oklahoma City Ordinance 30-81 was “void for vagueness on its face in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” An ordinance would be void for vagueness if it “fails to provide adequate notice to ‘men of ordinary intelligence’ of the conduct that is proscribed:”
[T]he void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement…
When considering a vagueness challenge to a penal statute, a court must begin with the presumption that the statute comports with the requirements of federal due process and must be upheld unless satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that the legislature went beyond the confines of the Constitution.
According to the court, the Constitution requires that “the language conveys sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured by common understanding and practices.” In this particular instance, the federal district court found the challenged disorderly conduct ordinance, Municipal Code § 30-81, would require the following: “the person must engage in conduct that causes apprehension by the public and there must not be an apparent explanation or justification for the behavior.” Under the circumstances of this case, the federal district court concluded “the statute defines the offense with sufficient definiteness that it does not violate plaintiff’s due process rights. Specifically, the court found “[o]rdinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and the offense sets forth minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement and prevent arbitrary enforcement.”
For no apparent reason, plaintiff was behaving in a public place in an alarming or disconcerting manner. When given the opportunity to explain, plaintiff replied “my morning exercises” and proceeded immediately with conduct which a reasonable person might have viewed as threatening, or at least as something other than an ordinary “morning exercise.”
As a result, as applied to Galbreath’s arrest, the federal district court concluded “the ordinance cannot be said to be unconstitutionally vague.” Moreover, the court noted “[t]he issue is presented in a different posture than usual, as the charge against plaintiff was dropped.”
While plaintiff’s arrest, under the circumstances as we now know them to be, was perhaps unfortunate, it did not violate his due process rights…Further, the court has concluded Officer Parton had probable cause to arrest plaintiff and that, based on that conclusion, the search of plaintiff’s bag was valid.
The federal district court, therefore, concluded “the officer had probable cause to arrest plaintiff and would be entitled in any event to qualified immunity as to plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment arrest claim.” Moreover, the court held “the search of plaintiff’s bag was proper as a search incident to arrest.” As a result, the court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants Parton and Oklahoma City, effectively dismissing Galbreath’s lawsuit.
James C. Kozlowski, J.D., Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor in the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism at George Mason University. Email email@example.com. Webpage with link to Law Review articles archive (1982 to present): http://mason.gmu.edu/~jkozlows.